Daft Punk's Random Access Memories proves disco still doesn't suck
Artwork by Chris Strouth
Makes No Sense At All captures the visions, ramblings, and memories of Chris Strouth, a Twin Cities-bred master of music, film, and everything else.
Disco has gotten a bad rap, in spite of the fact that a lot of commercial rap is based on disco. People love to tell you disco sucks and they only listen to techno, or funk, or any of the other cousins of disco. The reality is that not only does disco not suck, but it has been the third tine of the trident of popular music, next to alt-rock and hip-hop. It's the throbbing 4/4 behind every dance hit, and the base of every boy band. We just call it pop so that no one imagines white polyester suits and black satin shirts. Folks like LCD Soundsystem and Har Mar Superstar might take a tongue-in-cheek approach, but whenever you hear a four on the floor beat -- as opposed to the 4onthefloor -- it's disco coming out to say hi.
It's pretty rare in this millennium for the release of any record to be a particularly big deal. We saw a little wave of it earlier this winter when David Bowie released his first record in a decade. That may have lit up the fan boys, but the announcement of a new Daft Punk record seems to have lit up the world. Everywhere you go, people are talking about it, in a way that almost makes it feel like the '90s, when people would line up outside a store to buy a record at midnight the way they do now for Gears of War sequels.
That Daft Punk is the great equalizer is weird and breaks every rule pop culture has -- they're French, they play disco, and they dress like robots. Yet even the crunchiest granola head can find a spot in their ever so pure heart for them. The KDWB crowd loves them, and even the most jaded of hipsters has put them on a playlist. Their soundtrack for Tron gained greater acclaim than the film itself and made them Radio Disney regulars. They took out a series of ads on Saturday Night Live -- cryptic, confusing, and absolutely making you curious. A national ad for a record: when was the last time anyone did such a thing? They give interviews rarely, yet each masked utterance seems to launch a thousand articles about their mystique, and their eschewing of fame.
Which if you think about it is all kinds of hilarious. It's an article in a massive publication about how they avoid fame. If that's really the case, they kind of suck at it. KISS was the biggest band in the world, and no one knew who they "really were." If everyone knew how pugnacious Gene Simmons really was, would KISS have had a career much past Love Gun? It's the same trick that has played so well for the Residents -- the fact that you don't know who they really are makes it intriguing, and once you know that they are a bunch of aging hippies it becomes a lot less hep.
But Daft Punk are way more than just shiny helmets and PT Barnum-style marketing; they are historians and craftspeople. They don't approach EDM as a series of beats pieced together; rather they are cognitive of the whole. No one note, no one sound is more important than any other. They approach the work with a masterful eye to detail and that is what makes all the difference and separates the rubber from the road. They might be writing in dance music but they don't follow the rules of the modern. Rather, they hybrid, taking bits of Italo disco, space disco, and kraut rock with a bit of music concrete. In a world where almost everything is auto tuned, essentially turning the human voice more robotic, Daft Punk tries to make the robot voices more human-like. They do it better than anyone has before; if there were such a thing as the International Vocoders Manufactures Association they would be their spokes-droids.
All that technology and then they throw us a curveball with the new record, Random Access Memories -- which just as a title is worthy of a Philip K. Dick novel. This record doesn't rely on synthesizers; rather it's almost all instruments played live, manipulated, and with vintage Vocoders. It's a great sound, and the production throughout is really rather masterful, It feels like it could be a Giorgio Moroder record as produced by Bunny Sigler.
In other words, it's a bit of throwback. Disco didn't start out as all synths and drum machines; in fact there is some question as to where and when it started. I like to think it started in the early 1960s with rise of the discotheque culture and places like the Peppermint Lounge, Annabell's, and Arthur. Two turntables, and records to dance to, not to mention the invention of that great American art form: go-go dancing. It was the era of nightclubs and whether it was a DJ or a band playing, it was music for people to dance to. The band wasn't necessarily the feature attraction as much as what they were playing.
It's the sort of environment that spawned tons of small R&B combos and mod groups abroad, but here it birthed things like KC and the Sunshine Band. They weren't quite rock and they weren't quite funk and they were the gateway drug that let disco jump to the airwaves. The primary difference is that bands like KC and the Sunshine Band were mostly analog instruments; the only way to have horns or strings at the time was to have a horn, or string player. Synthesizers were expensive and rare, but by the end of the '70s that changed, and people like Giorgio Moroder showed what could be done beyond emulation in a pop context, it changed the field. That said, a lot of disco classics like "The Hustle," or "Stayin' Alive" -- which did use a drum loop, but it was played live and was an actual tape loop -- were mostly analog instruments with the occasionally keyboard part.
So by using all analog instruments, Daft Punk is going back to the days when dance records had big enough budgets to hire high-end players. It's part of what gives the record its warmth and human feel -- familiar yet not retro, more of a past that you wish existed, one that was more clear, more focused, yet still groovetastic.
Artwork by Chris Strouth
One of the more surprising guests on the record is Paul Williams, noted singer songwriter and one of the '70s biggest fame whores. That said, I truly adore his compositions, and if you get a chance you really should check out "Paul Williams Still Alive," a kind of remarkable take on a remarkable story. It's Williams who gives the human/ cyborg analogue its most profound moment with the track "Touch." In it, he sings "Touch, sweet touch/You've given me too much to feel/Sweet touch/You've almost convinced me I'm real/ I need something more." It's haunting, it's the moment that you're not going to get on a typical dance record. It's here because this isn't a dance record. Oh sure, it's going to be the summer disco soundtrack, but that is the underlying genius of Daft Punk -- they see beyond the beat.
Random Access Memories is a pretty remarkable record. It challenges as it entertains. It feels like a concept record, but does it without hitting you over the head with it. There are subtle clues throughout that you can either delve into or ignore as you see fit. It pays homage to a tradition that few outside of the EDM would even consider. With the inclusion of some of the old school heroes like Giorgio Moroder, Nile Rodgers, and of course the aforementioned Mr. Williams, but then adding Pharrell Williams and Panda Bear, it all but guarantees its inclusion on college radio and a place on the urban charts. The only thing it doesn't have is the party anthem single -- the "One More Time" or "Around the World." Still, in a time when everyone is obsessed with singles and proclaiming the death of the album, Daft Punk shows everyone the true wonder that a great album can be.
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